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  • Lord Copper

Pax Britannica, pax Americana

This is only tangentially related to metals today – wait to the end for the connection – but the mayhem being reported from Afghanistan started me thinking of the historic issues of that unfortunate war-ravaged land.

But before coming on to that, I also started thinking about differing imperial or quasi-imperial motivations. 

The growth of the British Empire, and more specifically in its nineteenth century pax Britannica phase, was driven principally by a commercial, mercantile imperative. In other words, the British mostly invaded various parts of the world in search of wealth – mineral, agricultural, mainly – to take back home to feed the factories of the industrial revolution and its growing urban population. That’s not the entire story, of course, since nothing is ever that simple; there was the missionary element, but broadly that followed along behind, and the governance installed was largely to keep the indigenous population quiet so they didn’t upset the commercial activities.

The East India Company had a large army, it is true, but at heart it was a commercial enterprise with the objective of securing resources from the undeveloped sub-continent to bring back at a profit to the mother country. The army was there to protect that trade.

Now, my point here is not to say this was good, bad or indifferent – I’m not making that judgement. Contrast it, though, with objectives of the United States in the period, still ongoing, that we could term pax Americana. No significant resources were ever transported – nor was it even suggested – from Vietnam or Afghanistan, Iraqi oil was flowing to western traders, and had been since its discovery. What the American quasi-imperialists were interested in was not resources and trade, but hearts and minds. In other words, the objective was not material enrichment but rather the desire to persuade the invaded to change their way of life. A political rather than a mercantile motive. I’ve no doubt that the imperialist British were also convinced that their way of life was a better one, but the prime motive was not that, it was the desire to gain wealth. And indeed we can look back further, to the Spanish, for example; did they really care about anything in South America, apart from the gold and silver they could transport back to Spain?

But Vietnam was to hold back the communist threat from the north; Afghanistan was initially to revenge 9/11, but that pretty soon morphed into a desire to create a western-style democracy in a hitherto tribal and traditionalist land. Political motives.

The British did embark on some projects for political motives, it is true. One of the most marked of these was – by a remarkable symmetry – the invasion of Afghanistan. The reason that was undertaken was that Imperial Russia appeared, in the very early Victorian years, to be a threat to Imperial India, by then the most prized possession of the Empire. Russia lurked to the north, casting covetous eyes on a warm water port in South Asia, the easiest route to which was through the badlands of Afghanistan. 

Russian and British political agents swarmed over the country, trying to get the ear of the ruler. That culminated with the British moving an army to Kabul, where they set up a cantonment on the fringes of the city, in the hope that the show of force would persuade the ruler to throw in his lot with the white queen across the water. It started badly, then seemed for a while to go better, and indeed many military families decamped from the hot, dusty plains of India to join the soldiers in the more agreeable climate of Kabul; and then the whole situation got really bad from the British point of view, with the killing in the early winter of 1841 of the senior East India Company political agents, first Sekundar Burnes, then later Mcnaughten. 

The British commander – Lord Elphinstone – then agreed a safe passage out of the country for his army and its legion of camp followers (a total of about 16500 people, of whom only about 4500 were military); in the end, the Afghan tribesmen didn’t hold their side of the safe passage, attacking all along the retreat through the Hindu Kush and culminating in the obliteration of Elphinstone’s column on a frozen hillside near the village of Gandamak. That defeat is portrayed in a very well-known painting by William Barnes Wollen. One European – a Doctor Brydon – made it back to the relative safety of Jalabad; the rest of the 16500-odd were killed or captured, including Elphinstone, whose body was returned some time later. (Well, that’s the official version – of course, those of us who are aficionados of the Flashman Papers know that there was one other escapee: Harry Flashman, whose heroic, undeserved reputation began in Afghanistan.) Anyway that was the fate of British imperialism when it pursued politics not commerce, or trade. Sounds a bit like Saigon 1975 or Kabul today, doesn’t it?

So where does it go from here? It seems covetous eyes are already being cast again on the country; this time, there does appear to be a commercial motive, although it’s probably not the entire story. Because Afghanistan is now recognised to hold serious resource riches, not least copper and the flavour of the year, lithium. Those eyes seem to be coming from China and Russia, neither of whom have a great reputation in these things either, so pity the Afghans again. 

I’m not making a judgement here, as I said at the beginning, but pax Britannica lasted for quite a long while, and ended mostly, but certainly not exclusively, not so badly; pax Americana can’t really say that, although we are – I would suggest – not yet at the end. Taking peoples’ resources seems to be easier that capturing their minds…..

One other random thought. Elphinstone is generally accepted as being one of the least capable of the many generals of the Victorian colonial era. But, although he failed, at least he understood that his troops had to escort the many camp-followers out, rather than just leaving them to their fate…… 




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